“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. ” Abraham Lincoln said this in his second inaugural address alluding to the fact that the North and the South each used the Bible to support of their very different views on slavery. Lincoln wasn’t the first or the last to notice that people on opposite sides of an issue can each use the Bible to give authority to their views.
If you simply pick out selected verses and chapters the Bible does seem to contradict itself. If you try to use the Bible primarily as a rule book or road map it can seem as if it says both “yes” and “no” to the same thing. How can the Bible be used to affirm and condemn, war and slavery? How can several views on the status of women and a variety of views on human sexuality all be justified biblically? The problem isn’t, actually, the Bible. The problem is the way we read the Bible. Modern, western people, for the most part, like linear, logical books. Very few of us read fiction, actually very few of us read anything at all. The few of us us who do read, tend to read for information and we want our information organized and easily assimilated.
“7 Easy Steps….”
“Three keys to….”.
But that is not how the Bible is written. The Bible is mostly story. Even the “rules” are told as part of the story. Actually “story” is not quite right. It is “stories” many stories in one book. All the stories combine to give us the big story about how God is at work in the world, even as the big story is told from more than one perspective.
There are two creation stories- each one telling us important things about God and creation. To ask which one is “right” is to miss the point. The story of Noah, the Ark and the flood is actually two stories mixed together from two different sources which don’t agree on some things. For example, two animals or seven? The book of Joshua tells one account of the conquest of Canaan and the book of Judges tells the story differently. The story of David told in 1 Samuel 15-1 Kings 2 is not exactly the story told in 1 Chronicles 10-29. Some parts are the same, in fact word for word the same, other parts are different reflecting a different point of view. (See Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard W. Anderson and Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall for more information). And of course, there are four gospels similar but not identical each telling us important things about Jesus.
The Bible contains a variety of views and perspectives all trying to understand how God is at work in the world. So how do we sort all this out? What do we do with a Bible that condones slavery and condemns it? That treats women as lesser humans and affirms women’s value and worth? That commands war and condemns war? We can go on and on with examples, but that doesn’t solve the problem of how we are to make sense of this?
Here is one way to start untangling things.
At some time, if you hang around pastors or theology students, you may hear someone talk about “the now and not yet”. What they are describing with that phrase is the reality that God’s reign has begun with Jesus life, death, and resurrection but is “not yet” fully present because the world is not yet the way it should be- will be. At the same time, things are changing and moving towards God’s future. And that is an idea we need to bring to the Bible.
When we read historical accounts of laws and events in the Bible we need to remember that we are reading a description of the ancient “now”. Not our “now”. God is interacting with people where they were at that time. When Torah gives instructions for slaves, it is difficult for us to read, but at the time Torah was a step forward toward recognizing slaves as humans not objects or property. The Torah instructions on how to treat women captured in war seem terrible to us. Taking a woman captive and marrying her after killing her husband or father seems horrible but we forget how poorly women were typically treated in those days. An unmarried woman was vulnerable with no status, no protection, no safety net. They begged or prostituted themselves to survive- if they survived. Torah’s instructions to allow women captives to mourn their dead and then to be wives was to treat women captives as human beings with feelings and some level of value. It was a step forward. Forward to God’s future where all persons are valued. That is partly why Christians can eat shellfish and get tattoos. That is why we don’t stone disobedient youth, and so on.
The Bible deals with ancient life as it was and encourages ancient people (and us) to move forward to God’s future of shalom. No war, no slavery, peace, justice, all persons valued. Seeing the Biblical texts in light of “now and not yet” helps us remember that the Bible is not a collection of timeless truths to be plucked out of context but the story of steps forward toward the new heaven and new earth, the world redeemed and restored.
God, as John Calvin wrote, accommodates God’s self to us. God meets us where we are and then calls us to move forward. God met ancient Israel where it was and called it forward. Jesus met the disciples where they were and called them forward. The Holy Spirit meets us where we are and calls us forward.
How do we know which things in the Bible are particular to a certain time and place and which things apply to all of us? That’s the difficulty isn’t it? It can be difficult. But with God’s help, we work this out together, talking, thinking, praying, reading.